Laal was walking up into the hills that surrounded the town. The hills sat at one end of the forest and Riyah had told him to meet her there. She had said to walk until he came across a great, rotting tree that had fallen on its side decades, maybe even a century, ago. She would be there, waiting for him. Laal had not expected her to leave before he woke up in the morning, but her imprint had all but faded when he had rolled over to say ‘hello’ to her upon waking. Today was the day he had wanted to ask her to extend her stay. Riyah had mentioned a couple weeks before that since the summer was now coming to an end, she would have to go home shortly. As far as he knew, she had yet to purchase a train ticket. But maybe he was wrong, maybe she was going to say goodbye to him in the forest and leave him there beside the long dead tree before going back into town, boarding the train, and leaving him forever.
Laal tried not to think about this. He had scrubbed hard with the vanilla scented soap that she liked when showering that morning, and he had been sure to brush his wet hair the way she liked on him afterwards. Laal thought he could convince her to stay –he was sure of it. The townspeople were under the impression that they were engaged. This was the story he had told them when he’d been visiting his aunt. They had carried on in secret that entire first week and he had convinced her to come back home with him for the remainder of the summer.
“I’m not from here, Laal,” she had said. “I will have to travel even further to get home at the end of the summer.”
‘That can be easily arranged!’ he’d assured her.
The townsfolk had been skeptical at first, but had quickly warmed up to Riyah. She was kind, charming, and disarmingly beautiful. ‘One can understand why young Laal chose to settle down so suddenly!’ said one of the uncles at the market one day, ‘A woman like Riyah is proof of God!’
Laal did not know what he would say to the people if she left. But that could be figured out later, if it came to it, he told himself. Right now, he focused on convincing her. He felt sure that he could.
As Laal walked through the forest, mosquitoes and other insects buzzed around his ankles, fallen leaves and overgrown blades of grass whistled and crunched quietly as he stepped over them. He walked so quickly it almost seemed like he was gliding over the ground, and the longer he walked, the more nervous he got. Finally, the carcass of the fallen tree came into view, it had once been a rich brown color, but years of rain and rot had blackened the trunk. The curtains of wet moss covering half of it were such a dark shade of green that they almost looked black as well.
Riyah stood on the other side of it.
There was a wide gorge on the forest floor. It cut across like a deep wound and went endlessly in both directions. She stood at the very edge, facing Laal.
He waved and called out to her, “Riyah!”
As he got closer, Laal slowed down. Riyah seemed to be covered in a dress printed with flowers. Then it seemed like she was covered in flowers. The closer Laal got to Riyah, the harder it was to tell what he was seeing. Even though he recognized her, she didn’t look like herself. When he was only a few feet away, Laal stopped walking altogether. It felt like there was a foggy glass wall between them, but there was nothing. Laal rubbed his eyes, but it did nothing. This was no illusion. She asked him to come closer. Laal took a few more steps until he was only inches away from her. Her eyes were gold with flecks of vibrant blue. Her hair was the same amber color it had always been but now it was wild and wet, flowing long and light behind her. Her skin, if you could call it that, was nothing but the flowers, he thought he’d seen from afar, stretched taut and wrapped around her.They were not articles of clothing, they were her. There was no telling where the edge of a rose petal ended, and her body began.
“You seem surprised,” said Riyah, with a smile.
Laal didn’t know what to say.
“W-what is this? Is this magic?” he asked, after a moment.
Riyah shook her head.
“I told you, I would have to leave eventually, Laal.” she said.
A wild thought occurred to Laal: “Are you a jalpari!” he demanded.
She laughed at him and shook her head,
“It’s something you must see. And it’s something I must do, and why I cannot stay,” she said, placing a hand on the side of his face.
Laal couldn’t remember if he’d ever felt a touch so warm without it burning.
“When will I see you again?” he asked, trying to cling to something.
Riyah looked at him, a sadness in her eyes, and shook her head. Laal opened his mouth to say something but whatever words he searched for were nowhere to be found. So he stood there with his mouth hanging open, and Riyah took the chance to slide her fingers to the back of his head and through his hair and pull him in. She kissed him on the mouth and he closed his eyes, trying hard to memorize the way her lips felt. Their softness, their warmth, and then their coolness with a hint of something sweet. Then nothing.
After a moment, he opened his eyes. There was nothing. He looked around, she wasn’t there. He stepped up to the very edge of the gorge and looked down. A glow, shaped faintly like her, had settled onto the craggy bottom. It spread itself thin, so thin and so clear that the bottom of the gorge was visible through its glow. As if it were the faintest veil woven entirely of light. Then it sank into the rocks.
And suddenly, there was water.
It rose rapidly, with a deep rumble that shook the entire forest. The sound was deafening and Laal stumbled back, transfixed by the sight of the water rocketing up to the very top of what used to be the gorge, and crashing against the edge. It began to flow out towards the other end of the forest. Laal knew that the gorge went on and on for many miles. Outside the forest, it went under raised railroad tracks that had been built to sit at the same level as the surrounding hilltops.
Laal crawled to the edge of the gorge, now the water, and slowly dipped his hand in. He wanted to make sure it was really there. It felt cool to the touch and was crystal clear. When he withdrew his hand, it was dripping wet, the sunlight, seeping in through the branches overhead, refracted off the drops sliding down his wrist. In a moment of madness, Laal thought he saw glowing bursts of color shooting out of his skin and hitting the trees around him.
But it passed.
He blinked, then looked around. Laal quickly got to his feet and began walking back home. Later on, he could not remember the walk. He could not remember if any of the townsfolk had seen him or tried to speak to him. He couldn’t even remember coming home. He simply sat on his bed for hours, looking around at the things Riyah had left behind. Different scarves and tunics; slippers and pieces of jewelry. His eyes searched for strands of her hair that might have been left behind, but nothing.
As he lay in bed that night, staring up at the ceiling, he kept finding himself remembering things about her he hadn’t ever thought of before. She had a mark on the back of her right shoulder that looked like three, small, vertical dashes, slightly discolored and connected to each other by a spot of soft skin in the very middle. He would often press his thumb gently against it when rubbing her shoulders or putting an arm around her, and she would lean back into him. Laal stared at his hands, wondering if he’d ever actually felt her at all. There was no way to know. He stood in front of the mirror and stripped. Then spread his arms out, staring at his own naked body in the mirror, trying to see if he could somehow find any indication of when she’d last touched him. After a moment, his vision blurred ever so slightly and he seemed to be covered in a smattering of glowing imprints. His mouth, his cheek, his neck, all over his torso and waist, his legs, it was like being covered in pieces of crystal. And then he blinked.There was nothing but his naked body in the mirror again. No glow, no marks, just him.
On the bookshelf in the corner, he saw the last couple of books she had read. He pulled them off the shelf and opened them. Riyah would mark the pages of every book she read with peacock feathers purchased in the market. ‘The feathers keep growing after you place them inside,’ she had explained to him when he’d asked her why she did this, ‘It’s one of my favorite things about reading a book, seeing the feather grow as I read.’
A few of the feathers had bloomed. Their colors were shocking even in the dim light of his room. He looked at one: the blue, green, and gold of the feather reminded him of how Riyah’s eyes had looked. Laal abruptly shut the books and put them back where they’d been before getting back into bed.
Laal went out early in the morning, stood at one end of the market and quietly said, ‘The woman I love has turned into the river.’ It took about an hour for anyone to notice him there, muttering this over and over again. At first, people smiled and laughed. After an hour, they grew concerned and asked if he was ill or if he needed to be taken home. After a few more hours, he began saying it loudly, ignoring everyone, and they grew a little fearful. A few people tried to grab him and lead him home but he tore himself out of their hands, turned around, and ran in the direction of the hills. He ran until he was in the forest, and until he arrived at the dead tree on the new riverbank. His arms and face were covered in scratches and cuts from running through the trees, but he couldn’t feel them. Laal fell to his knees next to the river and stared into the water, waiting. A moment passed, then another, and then fifteen minutes, then a half hour. Laal’s reflection in the water rippled as pain and confusion passed over his face. He brought his hands down to touch the water and suddenly, light flashed over his reflection. Riyah’s face appeared where his had been, and just as quickly, it had vanished. It was so brief. But it was enough for him.
He knew that she was real.
She was here.
Laal laughed triumphantly and pumped both fists in the air. Then he got up, turned around, and began to head back home.
This became his daily ritual. He would go stand at one spot in town for a little while and tell all the townsfolk about how the woman he loved had turned into the river. And then he would walk into the forest, lie beside the river, and talk to Riyah. He would spend hours just laying there, sometimes with his fingertips grazing the surface of the flowing water, he could hear her in the current. She spoke to him as much as he spoke to her.
The townspeople had been shocked by the sudden appearance of a flowing river cutting through their forest and under their railroad, but they were terrified and saddened by what they saw as Laal having lost his mind. The same uncle who had once remarked on her beauty now sagely told all who would listen that such a beauty was a curse, their minds could not handle it when she left. ‘Who could blame the poor boy?’ he would ask, ‘Wouldn’t madness fill the void she left for any of us as well?’ he would follow it up with, ‘Tread lightly when it comes to love. Lest you want to end up like poor, mad Laal, who lives next to the butcher’s shop and thinks the river in the forest is the woman who left him.’
This became a warning echoed throughout the town and all the nearby villages and towns for decades. The tale of Mad Laal became widely known and, as all tales do, transformed over time. Some suspected that Riyah had been a jinn who had descended into the forest and robbed the young man of his sanity. People traveled through the forest in groups, tightly clutching their talismans, afraid of suffering a similar fate. Children would sometimes follow Laal into the forest and watch him. They’d talk in hushed voices, daring each other to get his attention, or push him into the river. One boy finally did, and Laal leapt back up onto the riverbank and laughed loudly, bouncing up and down and spinning as the fractured sunlight shone over his wet body. The boys turned and ran at the sight of this, afraid that he would charge at them. When they got back to town, the boys told everyone that Laal had begun to glow.
But after a few years, most people’s fears fell away. Laal became nothing but the local madman. Every town in the world had one of their own, and he was theirs. They learned to ignore him, some took pity on him and would leave a bit of money or food at his door for him to find. But for the most part, they left him alone.
Seventy four years later.
One day, Laal’s hunched over figure took great pains to walk into the forest at dawn. He held an old stick to help him and each step he took, came with a deep grunt and a pop from somewhere inside his withering body.
He laid down right next to the river as he always did, and went completely still.
After a moment, he pushed himself over and rolled into the water.
There was a long streak of silver that cut through the current, and then the forest floor began to rumble, just as it had decades before when the river had first begun to flow. The water rose over the banks and seeped out in between the grass and the trees. It cascaded down over the hills and flooded the town. Even the railroad tracks shook as the river crashed against it’s pillars down below.
When the flooding finally stopped a day later and the river settled back into itself, the people in town found that there had been no deaths or any injuries. But Mad Laal’s home was gone, it had been a crumbling, old building for many years now, and so the water had swept it away.
They could not find Laal, either.
There was no trace of him anywhere.
No body in the river.
No walking stick.
Not even a strand of silver hair left behind.